William S. Burrough’s Avant-Garde Movie ‘The Cut Ups’ (1966)

In 1920, Dadaist extra­or­di­naire Tris­t­ian Tzara described in his man­i­festo how to write a poem, Dada-style. It involved cut­ting up the words from a text, dump­ing them into a bag and then pulling out the words ran­dom­ly. “And there you are,” he wrote. “An infi­nite­ly orig­i­nal author of charm­ing sen­si­bil­i­ty, even though unap­pre­ci­at­ed by the vul­gar herd.” Who would have thought that Tzara’s avant-garde meth­ods would be adapt­ed into a suc­cess­ful line of refrig­er­a­tor mag­nets?

In 1959, William S. Bur­roughs had just pub­lished his noto­ri­ous non-lin­ear mas­ter­piece Naked Lunch (heard him read it here) when he came across the “cut-up” meth­ods of British artist Brion Gysin, which were influ­enced by Tzara. Soon the author start­ed using cut-up tech­niques explic­it­ly in his own work, par­tic­u­lar­ly in his The Nova Tril­o­gy. Unlike Tzara, who believed that cut-ups would reveal the utter absur­di­ty of the world, Bur­roughs argued that lan­guage was a means of con­trol that locked us into tra­di­tion­al ways of think­ing. The cut-up was one way of blunt­ing that con­trol with new, unex­pect­ed jux­ta­po­si­tions. Excit­ed by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the cut-up, he exper­i­ment­ed with it in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent media.

The 1966 short The Cut-Ups is prob­a­bly Burrough’s best-known for­ay into exper­i­men­tal film, which he made with film­mak­er and renowned smut/horror dis­trib­u­tor Antony Balch. The film fea­tures ran­dom, repet­i­tive shots of Bur­roughs in New York, Lon­don and Tang­iers spliced togeth­er in pre­cise lengths but with lit­tle regard for the con­tent of the image. The audio is a cut-up con­ver­sa­tion with the words “Yes” and “Hel­lo,” get­ting looped over and over and over again.

The film is a trip­py, mes­mer­iz­ing expe­ri­ence. The mind strug­gles to make sense of the chaos. It feels like you’re watch­ing a dream that has some­how short-cir­cuit­ed. When the film first pre­miered, film audi­ences were report­ed­ly freaked out. Some declared that the movie made them feel ill while oth­ers demand­ed their mon­ey back. You can watch it for free above. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

And if you’re in the mood for some more avant-garde cin­e­mat­ic good­ness then you can check out Bur­roughs and Balch’s first col­lab­o­ra­tion Tow­ers Open Fire below. It’s NSFW. More avant-garde films can be found in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Explains What Artists & Cre­ative Thinkers Do for Human­i­ty: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

William S. Bur­roughs on the Art of Cut-up Writ­ing

William S. Bur­roughs Reads His Con­tro­ver­sial 1959 Nov­el Naked Lunch

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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